Not Merely Solo Quests in an MMO World

So, I got carried away with a wall-of-text comment reply and I’m -still- not done mulling on the issues brought up. Best to post this on my own blog, no doubt.

Spinks over at Spinksville expresses frustration over facing solo quests in an MMO world. It’s a bit of a rant that covers a number of game design topics and I just keep feeling that they’re not being properly broken down into their component bits to be examined properly. “Solo quests” is too general and may end up going down to the old and stale solo vs group debate road all over again.

Spinks conflates a number of issues into one, I think.

There’s having problems with:

Badly Designed, Unfair Challenges

That do not clue you in on the correct solution or offer good feedback towards this.

Or that are unfairly skewed towards a particular aspect of combat – eg. if you can’t dps this down within a certain time, you’re screwed. Fuck healers. Fuck tanks.

Or if you can’t heal this squishy escort NPC, you’re done for. Sorry, all classes without a heal. DPS moar and pray. Taunt it a second time, maybe.

This is especially bad in MMOs that aren’t designed for character classes to be flexible or re-specs to happen easily. If one is say, in RIFT or some such, one at least has the option of completely changing up one’s character to tune it to solve the challenge (though some would still complain that this is “forcing” them to play in a way that contravenes their preference. One could argue though, that proper mastery of a class means knowing how to play all its aspects.)

On the other hand, if the correct solution can be arrived at by reading the quest text, or by taking some time out to readjust one’s skill build (eg, in TSW or GW), or if there are multiple solutions to overcome the challenge that all classes have some access to, then that’s a lot more reasonable design in that any one player on any one character might possibly be expected to manage this.

Then there’s the challenge that doesn’t really offer any learning opportunities for the player. It’s really a time-gate. Grind this much repeatedly so that you can earn this set of gear with incrementally higher numbers that will now allow you to pass the challenge that you couldn’t manage before because the punching bag’s hitpoints are really that high.

I’m prejudiced, yes, I find this boring. But I suppose if you’re playing a game where nearly all the challenges are set out this way, then that’s how that particular game works. If you play it, you’ve accepted its premises. The challenge has to be consistent for that particular game.

Which leads us to…

The Bait And Switch

Seriously, stop this one. It’s dumb as fuck.

Here’s a trail of breadcrumbs on how to steadily progress with my game…

Now whoops, here comes something completely different, involving a diferent playstyle which may not be to your preference, WHAP, do it and enjoy!

The player is left blinking, going, hey, where’s the game I was enjoying before this blindsided me? Am I going to find more of the stuff I liked after finishing this weird shit, or do I face a future of this? Maybe I should be re-evaluating my future with -your- suddenly new and different game.

Don’t plunk a solo quest in the middle of a whole bunch of group quests. Don’t plunk a group quest (haha, fooled you, go spam LFG now!) in the middle of a solo quest sequence.

The ‘real’ game is raids. Now let’s spend the next five years trying to fast-forward raiders through the leveling game that they don’t appreciate going through to begin with.

Oh, the leveling through quest experience that you enjoy? You can still do it, but you’ll never be as strong or powerful as those playing ‘the real game’ and be forever looked down upon.

I have no idea what they’re trying to pull here. Give me a game where the PvPers get to PvP in peace with their separate progression and arenas, and the PvErs do PvE stuff, and everyone progresses in their own way, any day. For those who enjoy both, well, hooray, lateral progression paths! Do both!

Solo or Group Preferences

Are just that. A preference. Stop blaming soloists or groupies (or content designed for them) for all the ills of the earth.

It’s a false dichotomy anyway. Lots of people both solo and group. They do both solo quests and group up for dungeons and raids.

They may like doing one or the other more. That’s preference.

What we more often hate are that we have no alternatives. No options. Backed into a corner because -somebody- decided it would be a good idea to have this solo quest or group raid be completion-required-for-overall-progress or the only content drop in an update with a game-changing, playing field-unleveling shiny attached.

Forcing Players Into a Playstyle They Dislike (or Face Progress Blocked For Good)

No contest here. This is highly unpopular.

Make an “I-only-PvP” player PvE for gear just to be on an even playing field with their opponents, and the howling will be just as loud as forcing an” I-only-PvE” player into a PvP zone in order to get a shiny.

Making it a requirement for people who prefer to solo to group up for the best rewards and to see new content yields a whole bunch of very surly, possibly bad-at-working-in-a-group loners joining PUGs and everyone having a miserable time.

Just as making it a requirement for people who prefer to group all the time to separate and wait for each other to pass a certain solo threshold, “be-this-good-by-yourself-or-your-path-together-is-blocked” yields a very frustrated person who will wield the “M” is for multiplayer stance like a bludgeon.

Devs may still do it, as they may be aiming to lay a trail of breadcrumbs to lead players into trying out a certain activity, or they simply have no time to create alternatives or options but I’m sure they brace themselves for the complaint storm ahead.

Y’see, part of why this is so complicated is the large group of in-betweens who might be willing to do both. If tempted a certain way. And getting them to do both gives them variety. But I do think this should be “soft” encouragement and temptation, rather than “hard” roadblocks and forcing.

A cosmetic item with the same stats, but looking very much special and prestigious and unavailable elsewhere, is one idea. No one is forcing you to get it – in the sense that your playing field will still be level with or without it. Or a reward that can be gotten in a few places, so that players have at least a choice of the least onerous they would prefer. Or extra helpings of a shiny obtainable elsewhere or through other means, so that it’s most optimal to go for one path over another. (As long as it’s not ridiculously hard or lengthy to go the other route.)

Not being able to advance to next level, or get the next quest in the questline, or having no other means to get a reward with incrementally higher stats? Forcing. Bad. Prepare for tons of player protest.

Adjustable Difficulty Levels and/or In-Game Tutorials

Finally, we have the problem that I touched on in the comments but failed to resolve there.

What can we do with players who are not up to the challenge? That, for whatever reasons (some may be good ones – have a handicap, legally blind, ill, etc.), are not performing as hoped?

It’s harsh to have just one benchmark and say, “You must be this tall to pass. The end.”

That leads to elitism. (Though one might argue that in some games, both devs and players don’t give a shit whether they create an elitist community or not. It may even seem like their goal is to glorify the hardcore at the expense of everyone else.)

That leads to people failing to make the grade being miserable, pissed, frustrated, angry, feeling hopeless and all in all, ready to dump your game and move on to a more reasonable one. (Did you want their money or did you not care?)

I think the solution is obvious, but no doubt, hard to implement. Adjustable or scaling difficulty. With commensurate rewards, if you like.

The easiest difficulty is baby mode. Handhold them. Make it easy. Tutorial mode your special gimmicks. Just let players see the nice graphic models your artists spent so much time and hard work on, and maybe the story if there is one. Let any blocking progress be unlocked. That’s reward enough.

(I know I personally appreciated Super Adventure Box’s Infantile Mode before I graduated to jumping the normal course that most just started out with. Whee! Rainbows catch clumsy charr from falling and splattering to horrible doom! Except when charr chooses to keep leaping for sneaky hidden secret room of his own accord! Charr took 7 hours but finally got comfortable with it!)

The idea is to just get shaky players familiar with their surroundings and either content to be “done with it” or comfortable enough to move on to practising a slightly harder challenge now that they’ve managed to grasp a few necessary concepts (rather than learn how to juggle, pull, kite, fight, use strange skills,  heal stuff and not stand in fire all at the same time while getting beat on in completely unfamiliar surroundings that are a maze of twisty passages and getting yelled at by their supposed “teammates” or feeling pressured to succeed alone because someone else has finished and is waiting for them.)

Optional desirable shinies are to be attained at harder difficulty levels. Introduce the more advanced concepts. Bring in the more complex dance routines and gimmicks and so on. If they want them, then they must improve to the standards being demanded of them by the challenge.

But make the first progress-unblocker doable by all.

Because if you don’t, the player won’t have a reason to even play your game any longer.

LOTRO: Weatherstock V – 2013

Made it to my second Weatherstock! Was it better than the first?

lotro-band

You bet.

I’m pleased to report that Turbine moved swiftly to address the whole ridiculous forced emote saga by implementing an opt-out in the Options setting. This was well-advertised in regional for us noobs who only show up once a year and are completely bamboozled staring at our unfamiliar UI and going through our inventory bags wondering wtf are these things… and being ever so tempted to give the game one more shot. (I really need 48 hours in a day to do that though.)

I just as rapidly turned that setting off, and while occasional sneak peeks into the Combat tab revealed several people doing their best to force emotes from others, being immune to it was lovely. More importantly, because the musicians were immune as well, the music was uninterrupted and any attempted griefing didn’t make a mark at all.

Oh, there were attempts at emote spam and what-not, but there are the standard MMO tools for that. A new chat tab, select only Regional chat and/or say, voila, no spammy emotes visible. Or /ignore player. Hide one’s entire interface and all becomes immersive. Stuff like that.

Something extra special this year was Turbine’s delightful gift to Weatherstock attendees. Sending a tell to (presumably an organizer to) register your name and one would get a title, Weatherstock Wayfarer, to be awarded later in the week or some such. Some might say this is especially cunning PR as it may tempt one to check back into the game later, hmm?

Band players and organizers were also to get special titles, like Weatherstock Band and Weatherstock Steward (if my memory doesn’t fail me,) which is a really awesome show of support for such a special player-run event.

I am aware that this produces some whining from certain parts of the playerbase (like raiders or PvMPers) who feel ignored by Turbine while the “crummy roleplayers” seem to get all the special attention, but really, let’s look at it objectively. If you raid, quest, PvMP, etc. you are playing dev-created content. You are a consumer of content.

Players singing and dancing along to a lively tune

Players singing and dancing along to a lively tune

Roleplayers CREATE CONTENT for other players to consume. They also create community. A very stable social community. There’s a reason why roleplaying servers in many MMOs boast some of the better crowds which even non-roleplayers seek out.

It’s lovely to see one MMO where roleplayers aren’t an ignored subset, left to *ahem*, stereotypically, ERP, to their own devices. For an MMO as strongly based on lore and immersive and being true to Tolkien, it’s good to have some nods to this, even as all the commercial stuff like the F2P store has to come in for survival and to compete with other MMOs.

Speaking of the store, there was also a free coupon to claim a dance emote being advertised. Which I thought was also pretty cunning. Somewhere amidst the six hours, just to kill time while waiting in between sets, I personally opened up the store to take a peek at it (and note I still had some 2400 Turbine points left over before I lost interest in the endless laundry list of quests that were basically shuffling to and fro across long distances.)

From the player help being offered across the chat channels, even a total nub like me worked out how to operate the store, select a dance emote, enter the shopping cart, enter the coupon code, note the 95 Turbine Point cost being brought down to zero (yay, free!) and reap the rewards on a level 9 character.

Not that I knew how to operate it afterwards, or was the least bit interested in dancing (else there’s always Google or ask for help,) but yeah. Presumably for players a little more invested in the game than me, after sampling, this might tempt them to go buy the character-based emote or other dances for their main characters back on other servers or whatever – 95TP didn’t seem like a lot, even to me.

To get back to the actual Weatherstock…

lotro-elves

All the participating bands gave us some glorious music for some 6-7 hours. A digital concert. For free. In an MMO.

Seriously, the mind keeps boggling every time one thinks about it, and it really behooves everyone vaguely interested in MMOs to check it out at least once. Just to see what LOTRO’s music system is capable of.

I keep hoping for someone to have posted short videos cut from the lengthy concert on Youtube so that I can link to them, but so far, no one’s gotten around to it yet and I’m bursting to share already.

So I’ll direct you all to either the raw footage from MMOreporter or the entire Livesteam on Twitch.tv by Pineleafneedles if you want to catch all 7 hours.

Both have, to me, annoyingly loud commentators talking over the sound of the music or people wanting to be famous blocking the camera at times – which is a good avertisement for going to Weatherstock on your own to pre-set all your audio to your own preferences and direct your own camera, but failing which, it’s the next best thing, I guess.

(Have I mentioned how much more flexible the LOTRO camera is, compared to GW2? All screenshots in this post were taken from my sitting position. Didn’t have to move a muscle.)

lotro-vista

I know you’ll look at the length of all the videos and balk (or at least, I know I would. I can’t deal with videos very well, that’s why I blog) so lemme provide you with some of my personal favorite highlights to fast forward to:

From Weatherstock 2013 RAW Livestream Part 1 at 38:30, Run Like Hell (original by Pink Floyd) from one of the Lonely Mountain Band house bands Old Winyards.

Same video, same band, at 44:23, LOTRO-themed lyrics of U2’s All Because of You. Yes, I admit to a special fondness for cleverly converted lyrics.

The Songburrow Strollers, at 1:23:58, one of the competing bands gave a HILARIOUS rendition of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (original from Rolling Stones) re-entitled “Catfish Action” and very very hobbit-themed. This is a MUST WATCH!

Their final song is about plundering a biscuit jar and is also a good one to watch.

RKO (the Runic Knight Orchestra) did a beautiful rendition of Jim MacLeod’s Come by the Hills and a sneaky sneaky goblin-themed version of Jonathan Coulton’s Still Alive.

The Chosen Few did a very cheerful bouncey song about Grandma’s Feather Bed at 1:06:15 from the Weatherstock 2013 RAW Livestream Part 2. They also played a version of Still Alive following that and it’s interesting to compare how different it sounds from RKO’s due to the variation of instruments and arrangement.

Their final song was a knockout hit and another MUST WATCH. Living Next Door to Gandalf, it’s called. You’ll never think about Gandalf in the same way again.

A Rock and a Hard Place, a first time band at Weatherstock if I am not mistaken, did a nice version of Sympathy for the Devil from the Rolling Stones, re-titled Sympathy for the Dark Lord. Go Sauron!

The Breakfast Club did one of my favorites, Annie Lennox’s Whiter Shade of Pale, converted to an LOTRO-themed “Lighter Shade of Ale” followed by another great song, Petula Clark’s Downtown, now aptly entitled Breetown.

Flock of Smeagols, the band formerly known as Don’t Tempt Me Frodo, who would absolutely win best-named and best-dressed band prizes if given, played at 47:35… well, you’ll have to click the link to find out. God, I love this band. 🙂

lotro-youbet

One last favorite was Die Meisterbarden von Bree’s song – Jump by Van Halen – that they chose to play at the Battle of the Bands – where all the bands spread out to play their tunes and attract voters in the ultimate busking competition. Epic server lag hit as all the Weatherstock attendees started running about, so I doubt anyone has a good video of this.

(You can catch it instead at this pre-concert series from Pineleafneedle’s stream if you forward to 2:44:44 or thereabouts.)

There are a lot of other good songs that I haven’t covered. Picking and choosing from such fantastic bands is extremely difficult so do find your favorites and explore their other tunes. Mysteri from the LOTRO Players has a great summary in text of the whole band lineup and their tunes. So using that as a guide, one can more or less scroll back and forth in the raw footage for now. I’m sure some enterprising person will cut it later or at least provide timestamps for them all.

Well, we tried to bring it to 11... But Weatherstock was already too awesome.

Well, we tried to bring it to 11… But Weatherstock was already too awesome to crank up further. One of my last screenshots before the show-stopping lag hit.

I have to say, for such an epic event, things actually worked pretty great lag-wise. There was some stuttering with the march up to Weatherstock (which I managed to catch and thus get my squishy self up without having to worry about finding the correct rations for a summon.) There was a couple seconds of freezing on entering Weathertop as my ancient computer screamed in horror at trying to suddenly render the 100-200 players already up there. We were well-advised over Regional to set our graphics setting to Low (which I did) and to look at the ground or sky if necessary (which wasn’t, for me.)

On getting into the crowd, I had a bout of 5-10 minutes of constant logging in and crashing after a couple seconds to a minute or so. Which freaked me out until I put two and two together and realized that my very first crash had reset my graphics settings to the standard Custom high to very high I normally use to enjoy LOTRO’s scenery. So, of course, I would be logging in and then crashing out the next instant as the toaster known as my computer tried to render 500+ players’ varied costumes.

Cleverly, Turbine has an options to adjust graphics settings in the character selection screen before logging in. So it was a breeze to fix that back down to low and then log in and survive and stay connected. (Adjusting up to medium to attempt screenshots knocked me right out again after a minute, so yeah, low is best. And that’s why nearly all my screenshots are crappy.)

There were one or two missing musicians and a restart due to lag, but nothing really major until the finale. Which was completely understandable with the tons of people trying to move. And also very fast thinking on the organizers’ part to set up a straw poll using a third-party website when everyone completely froze and it seemed impossible to get a fair and proper headcount. Seriously, not every guild is up to organizing something on such a scale as this. LOTRO is lucky to have the Lonely Mountain Band.

A big kudos goes to Turbine for supporting this concert as well. I’m sure there were tons of behind-the-scenes people doing their best to diminish the lag speedily (resolved itself fast enough for everyone to re-gather and hear the winners play, and didn’t crash the entire server either, which is awesome) and a GM or two on standby to address untoward griefing.

A big thank you to all the bands and all the organizers for creating such a lovely event that can even attract not current players of that MMO to log back into a game.

lotro-aerialview

I heard the final report for the max number of players present at Weatherstock V was something like 642 players. Phenomenal. Broke all the previous year’s records as usual.

Here’s to next year’s Weatherstock. Bigger and even better!

(I can hear Turbine’s server room guys weeping already.)